By Steve Wiegand

For more than four decades, the ideological conflict between the free world and the communist world had influenced just about every aspect of U.S. life. The federal budget was built around the idea of defending the country against communism. Advances in science and medicine were often driven by the fervor to stay ahead of the communists.

Schoolchildren were indoctrinated as to the evils of the communist menace and chided to do better than commie kids. Even international sporting events became intense political struggles.

But the boogeyman began to deflate in 1979, when the Soviet Union intervened in a civil war in Afghanistan. Over the following decade, the Soviets poured thousands of troops and millions of rubles into what became the equivalent of America’s Vietnam. The difference was that the U.S. economy was strong enough and flexible enough to survive Vietnam, whereas the ponderous Soviet economy all but creaked to a halt.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader. Gorbachev realized that the old Soviet system couldn’t continue to dominate Eastern Europe. In fact, the Soviet Union couldn’t even continue to function as a country without some dramatic changes. He initiated two major concepts: perestroika, or changes in the Soviet economic structure, and glasnost, or opening the system to create more individual freedoms.

On November 9, 1989, the wall that divided East and West Berlin was opened. By the end of the year, Soviet-dominated regimes in a half-dozen European countries, including East Germany, had collapsed and been replaced by more democratic governments. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself had dissolved into a set of mostly autonomous republics. The Cold War was over.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the world’s only true superpower. But it took no time at all for one of the planet’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of thugs and bullies to test the United States’ will to live up to its role as the world’s leader.